A couple of months back I was sitting in an East Village dive bar enjoying, oh, I don’t know, my third or fourth whiskey (it was Tuesday, after all), when I noticed a very attractive girl next to me committing what appeared to be lines of verse onto a yellow notepad. Hang on, I thought: a fetching young poet sitting next to me in some blighted Manhattan grotto? What movie are you in, buddy? I stole a second glance. True enough, there was her pen scribbling curtly on the paper, and there were the one or two-word stanzas — illegible, from where I sat — filling up the left-hand side of the page in cursive, like the lines of an EKG.
Sufficiently tight to be recklessly confident, I downed my drink and racked my brain: how did it go again? Had we but world enough, and time … erh, something something something, and pass our love’s long day? … No, that’s not right. Long love’s day? Ah, fuck it. Maybe she prefers Donne: I wonder by my — troth, was it? — what you and I — no — what thou and I / Did, till we loved? In the end I simply asked if she preferred choriambic meter to amphibrachic? Or perhaps she was fonder of trochaic tetrameter? With a look of vague alarm she politely told me she was making a list of people she had yet to buy Christmas presents for.
I recall this episode now because a couple of days ago I was sitting at that same bar, a couple of whiskies in, a book of James Fenton poems unfolded before me. Seeing me there with my slim paperback, the clearly erudite bartender asked me if this was my idea of celebrating National Poetry Month. National Poetry Month, with its exhortations to “integrate poetry with technology,” “write a letter to a poet,” and — worse — “sign up for a poetry class or workshop”? No, I told her, I would absolutely not be celebrating National Poetry Month. What a racket. Another whiskey, please.
If you aren’t familiar, April was claimed as National Poetry Month in 1996, evidently by someone with appropriately literary sense of irony (“April is the cruelest month,” begins one of the most famous poems in the language). Three years later UNESCO declared March 21 to be World Poetry Day, a decision rumored to have been motivated by a desire to outmaneuver National Poetry Month — the idea being that if World Poetry Day falls on March 21 the American populace will be sufficiently versed-out once April rolls around. Not wanting to be embroiled in a poetic turf-war, the United Kingdom celebrates National Poetry Month as early (or, if you like, as late) as October.
The purpose of National Poetry Month is to spread awareness, as they say. But you’ll quickly find that spreading “awareness of poetry” is a bit like trying to spread a brick on a bagel. Have any actual non-readers of poetry suddenly discovered an unchartered love for, say, Ezra Pound, in the month of April? I doubt it. Have any of my non-poetry-reading friends called me up asking what the name of that poet who jumped off a bridge was? The one who jumped off the boat? The one who stuck her head in the oven? No. No. And no. If poetry’s record of tabloid mayhem isn’t enough to bring out the fans, a version of National Secretary’s Day isn’t going to do the job.
Charles Bernstein once wrote an essay contra National Poetry Month. He argued that the underlying message — “Poetry is good for you” — was a load of crap; a way of promoting bland, morally ‘positive’ verse that challenged no one’s intellect or sensibilities. So unless you’re really excited about that Maya-Angelou-at-your-local-library event, you’d probably be missing out on a lot of great but not necessarily ‘positive message’ poetry: Larkin, Seidel, Berryman.
That said, Mr. Bernstein’s call for an International Anti-Poetry Month is a just a tad overzealous. (Let’s not kid ourselves, Charles: if the poets start turning against poetry, we’re all goners.) If we absolutely have to celebrate poetry in some fashion during the month of April, then why not use the occasion to bring some long-but-unjustly-forgotten poet back from out of print? Howard Nemerov, say, or Genevieve Taggard. Or why not some of the British poets no American publishers have ever really bothered with: Christopher Reid, Mick Imlah, Tom Paulin.
On the other hand, to go back to Bernstein’s idea, maybe we could celebrate anti-poetry month in a more poetic vein: Dislike Poetry Month. We could all wear little pins and t-shirts that quote Marianne Moore’s ars poetica, “I, too, dislike it,” and walk around comforting each other by continuing,
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.